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I’ll sit this one out

“Technically it’s impressive.”

Technically. As my friend spoke of her experiences with GTA her qualifier was damning with faint praise. With my developer hat on I can definitely appreciate the technical quality found within GTA V: the world chocked full with life; Rockstar’s ability to make ailing consoles sing; and their satirical look at modern America. It’s undeniable that the world of Los Santos is truly remarkable but for all the plaudits I’m not interested in immersing myself in it. Technically it’s great but for me it lacks appealing substance.

There’s myriad reasons why I can’t jump on this band wagon, from fundamental disagreements with its core concept through to the feeling that I’ve played through its campaign many times already. That’s not to say I’m against the game, in fact I admire what it does and the aplomb with which it achieves it, but you’ll have to forgive me if I sit this one out.

Strangely, the primary reason is actually nothing to do with the gameplay itself. Some of this apathy harks back to GTA IV, which I left feeling disenfranchised. They had again woven an incredible city but I thought it was a waste as the move to a far more serious mood left me cold. It felt as though they had missed an opportunity with the playground they had created, as if more realism had meant a more sombre tone and an end to the antics of GTA III. I could have forgiven this if they had delivered on the dramatic potential but Nikko was such an unlikeable character that I never cared a jot about what unfolded. There are plenty of good anti-heroes in modern media but he missed the mark by a long way. Forever moaning about the injustices he had suffered and how he wanted away from a life of crime and yet choosing to commit countless brutal acts. He was a disjointed character that impossible to relate to.

The introduction of three leads addresses some of this, not putting undue pressure on a single character to lead a story arc that would otherwise fill two or three whole series of primetime television. In fact the interplay between the trio seems interesting to me as the unlikely gang cross paths and join together for criminal shenanigans. There is potential there as each of their disparate life styles clash and interweave, but the story issues go deeper than simple setup.

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Since the beginning GTA has stuck to a formula. Every world has been painted as one where males dominate and women come out as merely secondary characters, there to nag husbands or sell themselves on street corners. I can understand the marketing importance of casting a male lead but the lack of supporting females is disappointing.

After a recent debate on Twitter with a former colleague I now refrain from labelling it misogynistic – literally the hatred of women – but there’s a level of disrespect there that I find if not distasteful then lazy. The theme of men being powerful and women there simply to be either the butt of their jokes or their trophies has featured so heavily that I struggle to remember a single interesting female. There may have been a brief dalliance with an Irish-American wife for Nikko but as she was only introduced to ultimately be killed off I hardly think that counts.

Despite not having played I have consumed a large number of reviews and gameplay videos trying to get a handle on my feelings and from all that I can discern the latest release does nothing to overturn this precedence. I understand that parody needs a stereotype to work from but this one is wearing a little thin and for the sake of variety it would have been a welcome surprise to see the alleged weaker of the sexes playing a larger role.

It’s not alone as feeling familiar. The radio station’s once grand poke at American society now sounds tired, replacing the issues of 2008 with references to fracking and the mounting national debt. I can remember spending hours driving around town or parking up by the side of the road to listen to Ladlow’s radio show, now they are like a comedian whose set desperate needs refreshing.

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Admittedly there are some fantastic additions that add to the already brimming world. The heists in particular sound superb. No longer just a simple mission, the act of putting together a gang and balancing skills against cut could be a whole game in itself. It’s a shame they’re a comparatively small part of the whole which still appears to be mostly driving long distances to either drop off a package or to shoot someone (occasionally both) before driving an equally long distance back.

I miss the verve found in Vice City, where it readily paid homage to cinema set-pieces at the same time as adding its own twist of fun. Whether it was the neon colours or joyous soundtrack that makes me look on it more fondly, the more easy-going approach seemed far more enjoyable and varied. Today the additions of golf and darts are noble efforts to distract players when criminal life gets them down, but I can’t help but think that more effort should have been focused on the core missions.

Of course all this could be is because I’m growing old. Once upon a time I used to liven things up by holding down a crossroads with a boot full of guns and pockets full of ammunition, trying to get my star rating as high as possible and coaxing out the army with their tanks. When GTA III came out this was the height of emergent gameplay as the city would react and their retaliation was always a surprise. It was a challenge – it was the challenge – but I feel as I’ve grown older so have my tastes. Or maybe I’ve just seen it all before.

This familiarity is somewhat comforting; knowing that I could slip straight back into it should I so wish. But equally I’m sad that it hasn’t moved on to any great degree, especially when you consider the current set of rampage missions. If anything they show a further moral slip as where once was a silent protagonist simply causing chaos now there’s a psychopath visibly taking glee from his actions. Again this is subjective but it makes me feel deeply uneasy.

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If some of this seems at odds with my positive review of Saints Row, it comes down to two things: approach and setting. Compared to the realism being pushed in Los Santos, the virtual world of The Saints verges on the absurd. With superpowers and aliens it can’t be taken seriously and as such the repercussions are different; in terms of tone GTA is Scarface to Saints Row’s Avengers, though admittedly with more cursing. Furthermore the superpowers add new dimensions to the open world. I still steered clear of rampages or mindless chaos but the ability to fly and scale skyscrapers added more value than any bank heists. They pushed in a different direction and one that I wanted to toy with for hours on end.

It’s as if GTA has settled into a safe rut. Much like Call of Duty it has grown to such a size that it has become scared of change, worried that any alteration would deter its fanbase. It may not come out annually but we’re beginning to see it falling into a similar template of design as the developers know what has made the series successful and quite sanely are reluctant to change the formula.

Unlike Call of Duty however my worry is that GTA will never receive the impetus to change. Annual releases soon show signs of fatigue but there is such a legacy around this series that it seems impervious. It creates its own hype by keeping standards high and releases infrequent – a lesson many others could heed. More so, due to the interval they brings in a whole new generation of players who have never played GTA before and are ready to lap it up.

Given the current schedule I’ll be in my mid-to-late 30s when the next Grand Theft Auto releases and whether I play it or not is very much in the mix. With so few tangible improvements I can’t see myself ever playing this current version but if they decide to refocus and wipe the slate clean in certain areas then I may just join the midnight queue for a return (hopefully) to Vice City.

Will it happen? Probably not. There is a formula that raked in a billion dollars in less than a week and no one in their right mind would alter that.

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